The State of Literary Theory (The Chronicle Review Links)


Stopped by the department to pick up my mail and saw a large picture of Derrida looking at me from The Chronicle of Higher Education bin, and looking quite disapprovingly too – “What did I do?” I thought immediately and picked up an oldish issue of The Chronicle Review (June 13)- this is an old conversation that I think already exhausted itself, but the three essays that constitute the section “The State of Literary Theory” are available online, so I thought I’d point them out (gathered all nicely together):

Jeffrey J. Williams, Why Today’s Publishing World Is Reprising the Past.

Francois Cusset, French Theory’s American Adventures.

Richard Wolin, America’s Tolerance for French Radicalism.

Wolin’s essay has a nice tone to it:

What accounts for French theory’s warmer reception in America? Owing to the dearth of our own innate intellectual traditions, Americans are, as is well known, inveterate borrowers of ideas from abroad. As Tocqueville observed: “America is one of the countries in the world where philosophy is least studied. … [The Americans[‘]] social condition deters them from speculative studies.” Poststructuralism’s arrival on American shores occurred at a propitious juncture: the moment when our own indigenous Enlightenment value system had been discredited as a result of its implication in the Vietnam War.

French politics has oscillated between moments of frenzied revolutionary upheaval and periods of iron-fisted autocracy. Conversely, since America’s inception as a nation some 230 years ago, a very different political culture has held sway: the culture of political liberalism. Whether one seeks to explain that by America’s lack of a feudal past (as did Werner Sombart in his classic study, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?) or by the egalitarian traditions of New England local democracy, the results are the same: In comparison with Europe, our political extremes have rarely been too extreme; they have never wandered very far from what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once called the “vital center.”

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